Indigenous artist Marlena Myles poses for a portrait at Indian Mounds Regional Park overlooking the Mississippi River in St. Paul, Minnesota, on November 3, 2022. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Marlena Myles was surrounded by Indigenous people and culture as a child living at Minneapolis’ Little Earth housing community and attending school at an Indigenous magnet School. 

But outside of those select spaces in the Twin Cities, she was often reminded that few other people saw Minnesota as the homeland of the Dakota people. That was driven home when Myles visited Fort Snelling, a former military fortification that played a central role in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. More than 1,600 Dakota people were imprisoned at the fort in the mid-1800s; hundreds died there from disease and harsh conditions, according to the Minnesota Historical Society. 

“I recall going to Fort Snelling as a kid in fourth grade, and this classroom of almost all Native kids, they’re teaching this to us as if it’s pioneer days, or just blacksmithing or what old schools look like,” Myles said. “It’s insane that they didn’t tell us that this is a concentration camp. It’s why we’re exiled from Minnesota, why my reservation is in North Dakota.” 

Myles, 37, an enrolled member of the Spirit Lake Dakota tribe, decided to combat that ignorance with art. She unveiled one of her most high profile commissions this week with a Google Doodle she created for the Google homepage on November 1. Other work of hers is also currently on display at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

Indigenous artist Marlena Myles created the Google Doodle that appeared on Google’s homepage November 1. Credit: Marlena Myles

Myle’s art appeared on the Google homepage as part of National Native American Heritage Month. Myles said Google, which sought her out and compensated her for her work, originally hoped that she’d create art depicting the story of the Cherokee people. But Myles is not Cherokee, and wanted to create art about the Indigenous sport stickball, which shares similarities with modern lacrosse.  

“For me, it was a way to expand upon the deep meanings of why we do stuff as Native people, but also celebrate our differences too,” Myles said. 

Myle’s illustration depicts five people creating the Google logo with their actions and background symbols. In the illustration, a woman smudges the air with sage, a trail of white smoke forming the first “G” in Google. A medicine wheel forms the first “O.”

“At the beginning, they just wanted to have one version of stickball presented,” Myles said of Google. “But I said that it’d be more inclusive to include the other versions as well, so that everybody would be seen in it.”

Google was receptive to that idea. The tech company also embraced Myles’ suggestion that the athletes in her illustration should wear contemporary clothing as a reminder that Indigenous people aren’t historical artifacts, and that stickball is still played around the country.

A self-trained artist

Myles started thinking about the value of art and education from a young age. Her mother and several aunts are artists who created and sold beadwork to help support their families. Her dad’s mother in Connecticut would send her art supplies in the mail. Myles took classical music classes in school, but it was technology that best captured her imagination. 

“That was my favorite thing about school, was to go to computer class,” Myles said. “There was a program called KidPix, and that’s where I first started to learn to do digital art.” 

Artist Marlena Myles poses for a portrait at Indian Mounds Regional Park overlooking the Mississippi River in St. Paul, Minnesota, on November 3, 2022. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

It would be a sign of things to come. Myles attended high school in Rapid City, South Dakota, but yearned to come back to the generative natural and cultural spaces she’d grown up with in Twin Cities. After graduating, she made the move.

“A lot of our stories are embedded in the land itself, so the more I learn about the Twin Cities as a Dakota place, the more I see how my ancestors lived and also the stories that are still here — and that’s stuff I can teach to people,” Myles said. 

Myles settled in St. Paul, and without any formal training, embarked on a career as a digital artist on a mission to share her community’s culture. Her work is innovative and wide-ranging. Myles has exhibited work in galleries and has created murals, art for books, and maps of Dakota places in the Twin Cities. She also works with fabric, and has created a free coloring book on native plant life. 

Dakota land map of the Twin Cities artwork, created by artist Marlena Myles. Credit: Marlena Myles

All the while, she’s continued to learn about the history and significance of the landscapes around her, listening to Indigenous people’s stories and combing through books written by some of Minnesota’s first European settlers for descriptions of what the area was like when they arrived.

Myles said that the Twin Cities have made significant progress in the last decade in recognizing its Indigenous history and welcoming Indigenous people into leadership roles in public life. Changing the names of places to reflect their Indigenous identities, like the lake Bde Maka Ska in Uptown, serve as important milestones, she said.   

Still, she knows there’s more work to do. A number of museum and gallery spaces in the Twin Cities are tokenizing Indigenous artists and art, Myles said. She pointed to the Walker Art Center’s 2017 installation of a sculpture based on the gallows the U.S. government used to execute 38 Dakota men in Mankato in 1862 as an example of the consequences of not including Indigenous voices in art. 

Myles’ reputation has grown in recent years, opening up teaching opportunities. Myles is often asked to present in schools, which have grappled in recent years with the politicization of non-white history. 

Artist Marlena Myle’s mural on the Target store on Lake Street in Minneapolis. Credit: Marlena Myles

“Being Native, the government made us political,” Myles said. “The treaties, putting us in reservations, so somehow everything we do ends up being seen as political to people who want to acknowledge that this is Native homeland. That’s maybe why they resist learning about us.”

Myles has received a number of prestigious opportunities and awards, including a fellowship with the Minneapolis Institute of Art and multiple first place awards at the Red Cloud Art Show, one of the largest and longest-running Indigenous art shows in the country held on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. 

Unique augmented reality exhibit

Myles’ work is also currently on display at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska. She created the “Dakota Sacred Hoop Walk” exhibition with augmented reality that will include five different stops in the arboretum.

Visitors can download an app on their phones to view images and hear audio from Dakota speakers to learn about Dakota history and culture as they move through the arboretum. There are no physical images installed on the arboretum grounds. 

Wendy DePaolis, the arboretum’s curator of art and sculpture, said she doesn’t believe anything similar has been executed at any other garden in the country.

“This idea of putting something brand new like this in the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum—to be a leader in this in the nation—is pretty exciting,” DePaolis said. “I really hope that this will open the door for perhaps similar applications around the country and around the world.”

“Dakota Spirit Walk” augmented reality art exhibit created by artist Marlena Myles for the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary in 2021. Credit: Marlena Myles

DePaolis said the use of augmented reality also adds a number of other benefits: it doesn’t disturb plant life in the arboretum like physical installations do, and staffers don’t have to move sculptures around.

Myles also used augmented reality in her “Dakota Spirit Walk” installation at the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary in St. Paul last year. Myles said she particularly enjoys working in the medium, which allows her to layer worlds and meanings on top of each other. 

“Augmented reality allows me to tell my stories without needing to ask permission of whoever currently owns the land,” she said. “Augmented reality lets us break those kinds of boundaries and have more freedom as a Dakota person to reclaim these places.”

The full exhibition at the landscape arboretum is expected to be ready in the spring, and admission will be free for Indigenous community members. The first stop is available for viewing now with general admission to the arboretum, which is $15 for visitors ages 16 and up. As with much of her work, Myles hopes it will provide guests a new, nuanced view of the Dakota people and land.  

“I think when a lot of people think of us, they just think of tragic things,” she said. “I don’t feel tragic as a person … there are problems that need to be talked about, and we can resolve them and come to a better way of living, but it shouldn’t be stuck as, ‘Here’s victims and here’s sad stories.’ We need to be proactive as people.”

Artist Marlena Myles’ Kaposia mural in the Creative Enterprise Zone in St. Paul, Minnesota. Credit: Marlena Myles

How to see the “Dakota Sacred Hoop Walk” exhibit at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum:

  • Address: 3675 Arboretum Drive, Chaska, Minnesota, 55318.
  • Dates: The exhibition dates are “ongoing,” according to the arboretum.
  • Admission: The exhibit is included with membership to the arboretum, or with general admission. Visitors age 16 and older must pay a $15 general admission fee. Visitors under 15 are admitted for free. Indigenous peoples can waive the general admission fee.
  • Reservations: The arboretum requires reservations for everyone except for donor-level members. Make reservations here, or call 612-301-6775.
  • Map: A map of the exhibit is available here. According to the arboretum’s website, the first stop is currently available for viewing; four more stops are expected to become available in early 2023.
  • For more information, visit: https://arb.umn.edu/sacredhoopwalk.
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Abe Asher

Abe Asher is a journalist whose work covering protest, police, and politics has appeared in The Nation, VICE News, the Portland Mercury, and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @abe_asher.